“I am writing an ‘important’ memoir about not being able to write an important memoir. It winds up being kind of a novel-length comedic essay on insecurity and procrastination.”
To help you enjoy the interview, here is some information that is either enlightening or redundant (or both):
- Michael Showalter is a comedian, actor, writer, director, musician, cat enthusiast, and unwilling therapist (for the purposes of this interview).
- He is one of the originators of the sketch comedy troupe The State, which premiered on MTV in 1992.
- He is a member of the comedy trifecta Stella, with Michael Ian Black and David Wain.
- He co-wrote, co-produced, and starred in Wet Hot American Summer.
- Wet Hot American Summer is on my “Top-Five Favorite Movies of All-Time” list. The order is not of importance.
- Other projects he has starred in, written, and/or directed (in some combination) include: The Baxter, Sandwiches & Cats, and The Michael Showalter Showalter.
- He is currently working on a new TV series for Comedy Central with longtime collaborator Michael Black called Michael & Michael Have Issues, coming out around summertime.
And now, the questions:
The Rumpus: You co-wrote Wet Hot American Summer with David Wain. Is writing like sex in that it’s better with another person?
Michael Showalter: Um. No, I wouldn’t say that at all. If anything writing with another person is more like a bad date that ends up with an awkward kiss goodbye, but you ate at a great restaurant and saw a good movie. It involves a lot of compromise, patience, and frustration, but it’s a rewarding experience. I like my sex unfrustrating.
Rumpus: Understood. This leads me to a two-part question: What do you look for in a companion?; do you think I could be your companion?
Showalter: Super long whiskers, paws, a tail, love of chasing birds and squirrels, fondness for cuddling at my feet, finicky eater, prodigious nap skills, thinks my vacuum is alive. Do you fit these criteria?
Rumpus: I read somewhere that you are writing a memoir. Is this a true fact? Can you tell me anything about it? How much will it reflect your Wikipedia page?
Showalter: I am writing an “important” memoir about not being able to write an important memoir. It winds up being kind of a novel-length comedic essay on insecurity and procrastination.
Rumpus: A lot of writers are depressed. I assume a lot of comedians are happy. Where do you find yourself on this spectrum?
Showalter: Actually comedians are notoriously depressed as well. It’s the whole “sad clown” thing. Most comedians are not that funny in real life. We tend to be quite serious most of the time. I was very depressed in my ’20s. I get less depressed as I get older. I think that as I begin to accept my life for what it is rather than what I thought it would be, I become a happier person. I’m more grateful than I used to be.
Rumpus: I feel like we just really connected. But I’ll keep it professional. There is an immediacy in stand-up comedy that lacks in writing (as it generally takes 1-20 years to write something); how do you reconcile the two?
Showalter: Writing is sedentary and very mentally exhausting. Stand-up for me is more like exercising at the end of a work day. It gives me an opportunity to stretch my limbs, bellow, and stomp around.
Rumpus: How do you feel about grammar?
Showalter: I like it?
Rumpus: In a perfect world, I’d pretend you didn’t add that question mark. Are you in the middle of the writing process now? I ask because I’m interested in starting a writing group.
Showalter: Well, I’m writing my “important” memoir now. Michael Ian Black and I are writing a television series for Comedy Central called Michael & Michael Have Issues. It will come out in the summer. We’re also working on a script for a Stella movie. And then there’s my prose poetry…and my correspondences…and my novella written under a pseudonym….and…blogs…I’ve never been in a writing group…I don’t write poetry…forget it.
Rumpus: Forgotten. In Wet Hot American Summer, you played a Jewish person. Are you an observant Jewish in real life? I ask because I am Jewish and need to know if I should find your Jewish humor funny or offensive.
Showalter: I am not an observant Jewish person in real life. I do however have my own deep faith in God. My Mom’s Jewish. My Dad’s Episcopalian. Neither of them stuck with it. David Wain is a practicing Jew: blame/praise him for the Jewish humor. I’m exempt.
Rumpus: Let me know if David Wain is open to talking to me. Do you know how hard it is to find/blame/praise a nice, successful Jewish man these days?
Showalter: [This is not an actual question I asked Michael Showalter. Instead, I asked him what is below.]
Rumpus: In The Michael Showalter Showalter, your character, the fell-on-hard-times host, is an Aristotelian tragic hero of sorts. What is your opinion of him?
Showalter: Well, I am him, so I suppose I like him. I think he tries too hard. That’s part of what I find funny about him. He’s sort of self-centered and completely full of himself but also the most insecure person on the planet–a narcissist I suppose. That’s a lethal and funny concoction I think. Narcissists fascinate me. I know too many of them, and I don’t like them at all.
Rumpus: This shouldn’t follow my previous question, but it is. Actors in WHAS, The Baxter, Stella, The State, The Michael Showalter Showalter, et al. overlap. Is this an instance of keeping your friends close, and your enemies closer?
Showalter: Not in the least. If I could work with my enemies, I’d have a cast of thousands.
Rumpus: Well, as for your friends, you work with a lot of men. How do you feel about feminism?
Showalter: I’m cool with it. I also think that, for the most part, dudes are dudes and gals are gals. I’m not sure these two theories are mutually exclusive, but my life experience has brought me to this assumption.
Rumpus: Wet Hot American Summer could be considered the definitive coming-of-age romantic saga set in Jewish summer camp. Did you know at the time you were writing the next great American screenplay?
Showalter: Thanks for the compliment. The opposite actually. We were working on a different script that we thought was the great American screenplay. It’s sitting unfinished on a shelf somewhere now. We wrote a first draft of it, and then decided to quickly write another script before writing the second draft of the script that we “really” wanted to make. That in-between script was Wet Hot American Summer. Go figure.
Rumpus: I love that kind of accident. Speaking of accidents, I’ve recently been dumped. Your movie The Baxter is an artful depiction of multifaceted-ness of dumping. Can you give me any advice?
Showalter: General advice: release your inner-goofballl; be teachable; put out; be a good listener.
Rumpus: If only it were that easy to put out. You yourself seem to typecast yourself as that guy who prefers lasting romantic love over frivolous solipsistic sex, and as a consequence, you are the man who gets crapped on. Why have you chosen this role for yourself? Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art?
Showalter: I don’t know what solipsistic means, and I’m too lazy to Google it. I love frivolous sex, but you can have tons frivolous sex with someone you love. Is there any other kind of sex? No, I’m not like those guys. I think I wrote them to work through some high-school stuff.
Rumpus: I used a cliché in the last question, and have been known to do this in other questions. Do you hate clichés as much as I do?
Showalter: In clothing I hate them. In words I love them. I live by them.
Rumpus: This next question betrays either a hint of obsession or stellar journalistic technique: Apparently the camp in WHAS is based on a camp you went to in the Berkshires, and if a memoir reflects real life, how much does this movie reflect real camp? Specifically your camp experience.
Showalter: The summer camp in Wet Hot American Summer is exactly like the camp I went to. My camp was called Camp Mohawk. It was the Berkshire mountains. There were never more than 40 campers at one time, and the main activity was hanging out. They had sports but no one really took any of it seriously. There was a camp down the road called Emerson which was the exact opposite. We’d play them in sports a few times over the summer, and they’d beat us every time. It was a fun rivalry.
Rumpus: Watching Wet Hot American Summer helped me develop the opinion that you’re more about the why of a joke than the ensuing laughter. How do you feel about that opinion? Do you even understand this opinion?
Showalter: Yes. I’m working on changing that though. The ensuing laughter part is pretty important and it helps with paying rent. In Stella, The Baxter, and Wet Hot American Summer a lot of the jokes had to do with the idea that we were even doing the joke at all. I’m interested in making people laugh for a change.
The Rumpus: You’ve once said that the British The Office is the best depiction of the art of comedy. What about real life, banal life, is comedic? What makes us inherently comic beings? And as a follow-up, wanna F?
Showalter: Society is funny because it’s really stupid. People want to fit in to whatever “group.” We try to change ourselves and act a certain way so that we can succeed. It makes us behave in dishonest ways. We may not even know how far we’ve deluded ourselves. I think that’s funny.
Rumpus: I feel what makes you really funny is your ability to capture the unexpected, not in terms of being the opposite of expected, but more like what one would legit never expect as something humans would do ever for any reason. How do you explain this genre of comedic writing: that which is random is what which is funny or artful?
Showalter: Hm. I think that I like being silly. Silliness is inherently absurd–maybe that’s the unexpected part. My cats are silly. They’re unfiltered. They don’t really care if they look stupid. It’s appealing. I’m a big fan of “be who you are.” I’m not a fan of cliques; they breed conformity.
Rumpus: Where were you when I was in high school and college? And now?
Showalter: [This is also not a real question I asked, so there is no real answer.]
Rumpus: I think people’s relationships with books say a lot about them, and the root of comedy is very literary–irony, wit, truth disguised in jest. Can you give me a top five of the funniest novels or funniest characters of literature?
Showalter: I don’t really read funny novels, and by “don’t really,” I actually mean that I’ve never read one. I like horror genre, true crime, and non-fiction history books. John Wilkes Booth was funny in a sad way. Republicans are funny. I think Snoopy is funny as hell. I think I failed this question.
Rumpus: Maybe I failed in asking the question. Here is another question to redeem ourselves: From slapstick to Woody Allen, the need to laugh at ourselves (and others), is reflected and developed in film, literature, music. Where would you place yourself in the canon of comedy? You’re such a contributor to what I think of as “smart comedy”; how do you see yourself in the role as niche/genre creator?
Showalter: I’d like to think that I am to comedy what James Taylor is to music.
Rumpus: That makes me what to talk about your “greatest hits.” Do you want to talk about your new show?
Showalter: Yes. It’s called Michael & Michael Have Issues. It co-stars me and Michael Black as best friends and enemies. We’re trying to make our sketch show on Comedy Central, and we are constantly at war with each other. That’s art imitating life. It’s going to premiere in July on Comedy Central. My Mom and Dad watched the pilot and said it was the funniest thing I’d ever done. I think maybe this one has “ensuing laughter” in it. Please watch! I need the job.
Rumpus: I’ll clear my schedule for all of July to watch it. Last question. Do you like me as an interviewer? This is my first interview, so please be gentle and considerate in crafting your response.
Showalter: Yes. Very good questions. Smart questions. Not the standard fare. Job well done! I hope that my answers were up to snuff. Thank you!
Rumpus: No, thank you, thank you, thank you.
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